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Steve Flink: Conversation with John Lloyd

8/3/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

As a player, he reached the top of the charts in his nation, and climbed just outside the top 20 in the world. He represented Great Britain and helped that country reach the Davis Cup Final in 1978. He went all the way to the final of the Australian Open in 1977 before losing in five sets to Vitas Gerulaitis, made it to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 1984, and twice captured the Wimbledon mixed doubles title alongside Wendy Turnbull. He comported himself honorably wherever he went, played and acted like a gentleman at all times, and garnered a well deserved reputation as a man of uncommon decency. Although he did not absolutely fulfill himself as a competitor, the fact remains that he achieved significantly, played fairly, and avoided gamesmanship at all costs.

John Lloyd will soon turn 55, but carries himself like a much younger man. Moreover, he remains near the center of the tennis world in his dual capacities as captain of the British Davis Cup team and a leading commentator for the BBC. Although Lloyd lives in California with his wife Deborah and their two kids, his professional responsibilities keep him seriously involved in the worldwide game, and make him a figure of stature and enduring importance. Recently, I interviewed Lloyd and asked him to reflect on his decades in and around tennis.

We began the conversation with a look at Lloyd’s Davis Cup captaincy. He had served as British Davis Cup coach for two-and-a-half years under his brother David, which led to his promotion as captain in 2006. How does he view the captaincy? Lloyd responds, “The captaincy is a lot different than when I was coach. The British LTA was originally talking about my working maybe 7 to 10 weeks as captain, but I said I thought I needed 12 to do the best job. It has been interesting because when I got the job we managed to overachieve in some ways. Greg Rusedski was there for us and hanging in there despite injuries. Andy Murray was winning and maturing much quicker than we thought he might, and I managed to talk Tim Henman into coming back to the team after he had stopped playing on the tour. That was quite a time for us.”

Lloyd readily recollects the key contest during his early tenure as captain, when the British squad beat the Ukraine about three years ago. The key to that victory was Rusedski’s triumph over Sergiy Stakhovsky. As Lloyd recalls, “Greg was on his last legs on clay away from home and I will never forget him serving at 30-40, second serve, match point down. Stakhovsky shanked a forehand and hit a tree behind the court, and we went on to win. That meant we were still in Group 1 instead of falling to Group 2. It was the next year that Tim came back. That was a fun period when we kind of overachieved. Now it has flipped the other way.”

With Rusedski and Henman now both out of the picture, Lloyd has been forced to rely almost entirely on world No. 3 Murray, who has had a supporting cast that--- to put it mildly--- has been found wanting. As Lloyd explains, “Andy Murray has played about 50% of our Davis Cup matches because of injuries so now we have lost three matches in a row against other teams. I have caught a lot of flak for it, which is understandable. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t know much about tennis other than the two weeks of Wimbledon and they are wondering what’s up. A lot of the public still thinks we should be doing what we did in the great Fred Perry years, which is not realistic. That is part of the job and I accept that. But it is tough to make people understand that my highest ranked player other than Andy Murray is ranked over 200 in the world. I still enjoy the job and feel I am lucky to have it. It is a great honor. But it is also frustrating going from Tim, Greg and Andy to Andy being there sometimes along with a lot less experienced players.”

The bottom line is that unless Murray is available, Great Britain will inevitably lose in Davis Cup these days. It is as simple as that. “Quite frankly,” says Lloyd, “I try to always be as diplomatic as I can be, but this is how it is: if Andy plays we are a Group 1 team and with a bit of luck and Andy winning two singles and a doubles each time, we could make the playoffs. But without Andy—who has a schedule that is so bloody difficult for him-- we are realistically a Group 2 team at the moment. We have got this relegation match coming up in September and if Andy plays we are the favorites to win; if he doesn’t play we are favorites to lose and go down. Now I am looking ahead to the U.S. Open and wondering if he wins the tournament, is he more or less likely to play Davis Cup? I don’t know the answer, but frankly we need him.”

What has Lloyd observed in Murray from his captain’s chair that might enable the rest of us to better understand this fast emerging great player? Lloyd replies, “He is a genius. He is very single minded and wants to get the job done and will do whatever it takes to get it done. It has been interesting for me as captain being on the court with Andy, just as it was with Tim Henman. I asked Patrick McEnroe and John Fitzgerald how they deal with superstars and Fitzie told me the first time he was on the court with Patrick Rafter—who was a friend of his--- he said something to Patrick at one of the changeovers. Pat just looked at him and said something like, ‘It’s not going to happen.’ He said it in a nice way but it was his way of telling Fitzie that he could handle things himself. Fitzie was telling me that less is better in dealing with the top players.”

Lloyd conveys that sitting out at courtside through long afternoons across a long stretch of time can be difficult. As he puts it, “You are out there for three or four hours a lot of times and you can feel like a piece of furniture. You sort of want to get involved, not because of your ego but because you have ideas and you feel like all you are doing is handing the player a towel. But the top players are great because they can figure out a way to win by themselves, and that is how it usually is with Andy Murray.”

To many of us who have followed the game closely over the years, Murray appears to be considerably more ferocious as a competitor than Henman ever was, but Lloyd has worked up close with both British players and he has a different point of view. “I think Tim gets a really rough ride on that,” says Lloyd. “People said he didn’t have what it took to win because he wasn’t hungry enough or not enough of a fighter. But I don’t buy that at all. I absolutely believe Tim maximized every last ounce of his ability. Tim actually was as good a competitor as anybody but I just don’t think his game was better than No. 4 in the world. That is not a mean thing to say you are the fourth best player on the planet. Murray has more options. Murray has got an A, B, C, or D he can go to if he needs it, while Tim was more of an A or a B. Both are great competitors, but Andy is just a better player.”

In any case, before we took Davis Cup off the table of discussion, Lloyd expressed his justifiable exasperation with the entire format. I found myself in complete accord with him as he articulated his views on the absurdity of Davis Cup scheduling. As Lloyd put it, “The Davis Cup format is flawed. I think the ITF have had their heads in the sand for a number of years about it. There are very big crowds and so forth and that is great, but the ITF keeps turning around and saying there is nothing wrong with the competition. Of course there is when Roger Federer as the No. 1 player basically hasn’t played for the last five years. Yes, he has played in some relegation matches to keep Switzerland from going down, but he has basically not been available for first round matches. Rafa Nadal has been injured here and there and hasn’t always been able to play. Andy Murray has had his injuries. My concern is that this trend could snowball and we have to be careful about that.”

Elaborating on that point, Lloyd says, “There was a trend when Bjorn Borg became the first real superstar to stop playing doubles. That snowballed. Look at what has happened to men’s doubles. Your competition is only as good as the top players that make it. The FA Cup in soccer in Britain was the biggest thing when I was growing up. Then, about 15 years ago, the top team called Manchester United decided to field a semi-reserve team without their best players, and now the FA Cup has lost probably half its prestige. A lot of teams don’t put their best players in the FA Cup now. To me it is ludicrous in Davis Cup that the event can finish in November or December and the winning team could be out of the competition the following year in February. The winning team should savor their victory and the bare minimum that should be done for them is to give them a first round bye the next year.”

While the Cup captaincy is a role well suited to Lloyd—who has always had a sharp grasp of tactical patterns in matches--- he is able to take many of the same skills he demonstrates in working with the players, and transfer that knowledge and those instincts to the television booth. He has spent the past decade working for the BBC at Wimbledon and selected events elsewhere, but his career as a television analyst began when he went to work for HBO back in 1993. He is entirely comfortable behind a microphone, talking lucidly about tennis, picking his spots to make penetrating observations, knowing how to get the most from himself in that setting.

Having seen him on the air innumerable times across the years, I am struck by how easily he conveys his thoughts in that forum. “I have learned,” he says. “I took Arthur Ashe’s place [in 1993] at HBO after Arthur passed away and I had no experience. I was like a deer caught in the headlights. I remember the first thing that my boss Ross Greenburg said to me when he pulled me aside. Ross said, ‘Look we have given you a two year contract but you are now a broadcaster. You are not a tennis player. And if you don’t give opinions then your contract will be two years and you will be leaving.’ That taught me a lot. It was tough in some ways. I had been off the tour for a while but I still knew people and it is not that easy going into the locker room after you have just said on television that someone choked in a match. I learned what I had to do as a commentator. That’s why I almost think that when players leave the tour and go into television, there should probably be a four or five year hiatus before you become a commentator so it won’t be as difficult for that person to go on television and actually criticize a player who is a friend.”

That was a central issue that Lloyd confronted early in his HBO career. As he recollects, “Boris Becker was in the middle of a match and took a toilet break. Apparently his coach went into the locker room and was basically giving Boris instructions. We heard about this and Jim Lampley asked me what I thought should happen if it was proven that Boris was getting coaching in the locker room. I said if it was proven Boris should be thrown out of the tournament. A few years earlier when I married my wife Deborah, Boris had loaned me his house in Palm Springs for all my guests from Britain. I had been a practice partner for him in the past. So here was someone I considered a friend and I am saying that if the locker room allegations were true he should be thrown out of the tournament. Boris and I have worked on the BBC together for years and I love working with him. He has never brought that incident up to me but those are the sorts of things you have to do in commentary. That is what you are paid to do.”

Commentating requires an individual to take concrete stances and have clear convictions. But there are times when an announcer needs to stay more in the background to make room for others. As Lloyd puts it, “ I have never had what I consider a big ego and when you are commentating with John McEnroe , Jimmy Connors, and Boris Becker--- as I have done on the BBC—I know where my place is, particularly when there are three of us in the booth. Some commentators tend to want to hear their own voice and they worry that they are going to get lost so they talk too much. I know when it comes down to it that Becker, Connors and McEnroe need to say more than I do because they have won Wimbledon in singles and I haven’t. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion but I know that when Mac gets on a roll he is a genius in the booth so when he is saying fabulous things I am very happy to be a spectator myself unless I have something very relevant to say. I am not fighting for air space.”

Lloyd has always had a quietly confident sense of who he is and what he wants to do in life. That has been apparent to me for a long while. I got to know him well in the years he was married to Chris Evert (1979-87). It was during that period that he began to realize a remarkable knack he had for keen analysis of players. He was never officially Chrissie’s coach--- her father, Jimmy Evert, and Dennis Ralston, were her coaches, and both men did a terrific job in making her one of the greatest female players of all time. But John Lloyd played a vital role behind the scenes as a strategist for Evert.

Was it then that he knew he had a gift for picking up on patterns and helping Chrissie develop precise game plans to beat her foremost rivals? Lloyd answers, “Just listening to and watching Mr. [Jimmy] Evert was inspiring. He was a genius. Living with someone who was as great as Chris, you get to learn about how amazing a champion’s attitudes are, their fortitude, their strength. I learned a lot from being the captain and coach for L.A. in World TeamTennis and being around Jimmy Connors when I did that. I then had the honor of working with Bjorn Borg when he made his comeback [1990] and I coached Tracy Austin briefly when she was thinking about a comeback in the early 1990’s. All of those experiences helped me understand the mentality of great players, and how they think in crucial periods.”

Lloyd was flabbergasted by the qualities he saw in Borg when the Swede attempted his ill fated return to tennis at the start of the nineties. As he reflects, “Bjorn is one of the great human beings. I will never forget taking Bjorn to my trainer where we worked out in the gym. Bjorn was doing his stuff and after ten minutes I looked over at my trainer and his eyeballs were as big as I have ever seen them. He couldn’t believe it. He said, ‘This guy’s muscles are literally growing as he is working out.’ He told me Bjorn could have been a body builder if he had wanted to. He had never seen anything like it.”

On one occasion, Lloyd, his trainer and Borg went for a run up a steep hill in Malibu, California. Lloyd and his trainer were running at their normal reasonably swift pace, with Borg just behind them. As Lloyd recalls, “I could feel Bjorn’s breath right on my bloody neck the whole way and I was running my rear end off. All of a sudden he asked, ‘John, when does this end?’ I said, ‘Up there where the bridge is a mile ahead.’ Bjorn just took off and got way ahead of us. It must have seemed like ten minutes that he was up there at the top waiting for us to finish. The only way my trainer could tire him out was to make him do sprints for about half an hour up and down that bloody hill. In my opinion, the guy was the greatest athlete to ever play tennis in terms of fitness level. He was basically bionic. It was mind boggling what he did.”

As for Austin, Lloyd says modestly, “I was sort of her coach when she made her comeback for three months or so. I travelled with her and she was going through a very interesting period where she wasn’t really sure how much she wanted to play and she felt like she should and sort of wanted to, but then wasn’t sure she was enjoying it. There was a lot of emotional stuff going on with her and Tracy is a very private person and I was proud to be a part of that attempt she was making and to also be there when he made the decision that she really didn’t want to play anymore. I was fully in agreement on that. I really liked working with her and still enjoy working with her on the BBC.”

The session is winding down. Lloyd is ready to play a round of golf. I asked him to reflect on his playing days. Did he get the most out of himself? Without hesitation, he responded, “Oh God no. Absolutely not. That is one of my biggest regrets. When I work with young players I try to get through to them that a career goes very, very quickly. One day you are 21 years old and then you wake up and you are 30 and you haven’t put the work in. Until I worked with Bob Brett late in my career, I probably only worked to about 75% of my capabilities. When I see players I am working with in Davis Cup not putting in a complete effort, I know they will regret it a lot. I try to tell them my experience and encourage them not to let it all get away from them.”

Those are wise words from a good man I have known for 35 years. Every time I see him these days, it crosses my mind how little he has changed. John Lloyd remains true to himself and to his values. His congeniality is not manufactured. His work has made him a sophisticated citizen of the world, but he has never lost his sunny outlook on life; he has never surrendered his integrity. “I have been as lucky as can be,” he says at the end of our interview, “and I have had a great life. I have no complaints.”

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